Date: June 26, 2016
Title: “Being Still”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Psalm 46
This is the third sermon in our series on “Sabbath Sensibilities”, and when I read the Scripture for today, I thought perhaps I could just preach my life in recent months. First there was General Conference and all the work that went into preparing for it, and all the drama that went into the event itself. Then, I took a few days of vacation with my daughter Kate in southern California where among other things I let Kate talk me into going on the Hogwart’s Castle ride at Universal Studios. Don’t believe them when they tell you it is just a gentle little 3-D experience…. It is a roller coaster! And it is terrifying!
Then, after vacation it was time for Annual Conference, where I climbed on board another roller coaster, being nominated as a candidate for bishop. I could use a little Sabbath in my life right now. Perhaps you could, too.
So then there’s this story… it seems a cowboy is driving down a dirt road one day, his dog riding in the back of his pickup truck and his horse in the trailer behind them. Now this cowboy is in a bit of a hurry, so he is driving too fast for the road. And what’s more, he is distracted by a call coming in on his cell phone. So wouldn’t you know it, the hairpin curve sneaks up on him and – bam! – he runs off the road and has a terrible accident.
Sometime later a highway patrol officer comes on the scene. An animal lover, the officer sees the horse first. Realizing the serious nature of its injuries, he draws his gun and puts the animal out of its misery. Walking around the truck, he then spies the dog, also critically injured. Once again the officer does the merciful thing and puts an end to the dog’s suffering.
Finally he locates the cowboy, who has suffered multiple fractures. “Hey”, the officer shouts, “are you okay?” Now the cowboy takes one look at the smoking revolver in the trooper’s hand and quickly replies, “Never felt better!”
Isn’t it amazing, how quick we are to see the good in our situation when the alternative seems so much worse? And how slow we are to see it the rest of the time? I think of the Exodus story of the Israelites, freed from slavery in Egypt, but wandering around in the desert for a very long time. Like them, we have been rescued from much misery and freed from much oppression. Like them, we are traveling together toward God’s promised land – but we are not there yet. And all too often, the only thing we know for sure is that we are tired and hungry and thirsty. The only thing we can see is how far we have to go, not how far we have already come.
Parker Palmer suggests we are much like that Exodus community. For we, like them, are living in a tragic gap. It is the gap between the way things are, and the way we know they might become. It is the gap between the reality of the “here and now” and the reality of God’s “there and then.” It is a gap which may never be fully closed, yet it is one we are invited to stand within, faithfully holding the tension between reality and possibility. Palmer writes:
Often we find the tension too hard to hold, so we let go of one pole and collapse into the other. Sometimes we resign ourselves to things as they are and sink into cynical disengagement. Sometimes we cling to escapist fantasies and float above the fray.
Either way, we run the risk of recognizing only how far we have to go and totally missing how far we have already come! Unless, we manage to hear the Psalmist’s suggestion this morning. Unless we manage – somehow – to stop in our restless tracks, to slow down our frantic activity and to adopt a Sabbath sensibility which allows us simply to be still and know we are not God.
Wendell Berry tells us that “Sabbath observance invites us to stop. It invites us to rest. And it asks us to notice that while we rest, the world continues on without our help.” If we are to enter into that kind of Sabbath rest, we have to let go of our insistence on self-reliance, and our stubborn suggestion that it is in our own power to overcome difficulties, escape trials, or achieve great success all on our own. We must be willing to simply be still, and know that we are not God – and that we do not need to be! Each of us is standing knee deep in the river of God’s grace. So why is it we so often feel as if we are dying of thirst?
Perhaps it is because we do not know how to be still. It used to bother me, when I was young, that my mother could not just sit and watch television in the evening. The rest of the family might be sitting on the couch, or sprawled on the floor. It was easy for us to give ourselves over to whatever entertainment was at hand. But not Mom; she was always doing something – ironing, or mending, or grading papers for her second grade classroom, or planning menus for the week – something. And I would feel such irritation, as if she were doing all that just to make me feel guilty! Why couldn’t she just BE?
Now, as an adult, of course, I am the same way. It is hard to let yourself be still – to just be still. So a few years ago I participated in the Shalem Institute’s two year program on Contemplative Life and Leadership. Clergy from around the world were my cohorts in this learning. The first year, we met together for about ten days at a retreat center in Maryland, where we learned about contemplative forms of prayer and contemplative lifestyles and contemplative theologies. And we practiced being still, first for ten minutes at a time, then for 20 minutes, then for an hour. We kept increasing the silence until at last we spent 48 hours being still. After the great silence we met with a small peer group. I was in a group of six pastors from around the Western US and Canada.
It was a rich, profound, intensely spiritual time. Yet it was also a grounded time as we shared our experiences with others and lived our learning together. We knew we would be back together the following summer for another ten day retreat. What came as a surprise to us was that in the intervening months, in addition to the books we were assigned to read and the papers we would write, we were to practice being still together.
The first time I heard about this plan I thought they were nuts. I couldn’t even imagine the six of us in my peer group would actually join together in monthly conference calls, two hours at a time, and just keep silence! And yet, those monthly calls became some of the most treasured times for me. They were always rich, profound, and intensely spiritual. Probably because they were also grounding reminders that I am standing in the river of God’s grace and I do not need to die of thirst. Nor do you.
Being still… Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a mountain dulcimer she once owned and hadn’t played for many years. She writes:
Last week I took it down; it looked no worse for my neglect of it, except that the strings had all stretched out of shape. Starting with the low E, I blew on a pitch pipe and set the bow to the string, twisting the peg so that the sound went above the note and then below.
At first I did not know that the music was inside of me. I kept blowing the pipe, bowing the string and twisting the peg. Finally I tried humming the note, holding it while I stretched the string this way and that. When the string found E, my whole body agreed. The note inside of me and the note outside of me were the same note. There could be no doubt.
That is what it means to stand in the gap – it is to appreciate those moments when we recognize the music inside of us and we glimpse a bit of reality we normally do not see. It is to acknowledge the river of grace flowing around us and within us and at times even flowing through us out into the world. It is like hearing God’s own whisper, Be still and know that I am God. Taylor goes on to say:
There are whole months when both faith and music seem like impossible luxuries to me. So the discovery that E exists independent of my faith in it is no small thing. Even when I am not searching for it, the note is there. I cannot say where “there” is exactly, since it is no place I can see…but when I hear the note I know it. When I stretch the string just right and set the bow to it, I made a sound that has a name. And any stranger with a good enough ear can walk by and say “That’s an E”.
God is like that, existing independently of our faith, real whether we are searching or totally oblivious. Bidden or not bidden, God is present, helping us to stand in the gap between reality and possibility. And when we stretch ourselves just right, when we find it in ourselves to be still, we can lean down and take a long, deep drink of the river of grace flowing all around us. And any stranger walking by with a good enough heart can say “There is God!” Because it turns out that our glass is not only half full, it is always about to overflow with possibility. Be still! Thanks be to God. Amen.